SKY News AM Agenda (17)

11 August 2016


SUBJECT/S: Government’s failure to take responsibility for Census; Royal Commission into banking; Outgoing RBA Governor’s commentary

KIERAN GILBERT: And joining us now to discuss federal politics, we’ve got the Assistant Minister for Social Services and Multicultural Affairs, Zed Seselja, and also the Shadow Finance Minister, Jim Chalmers. Gentleman, good morning. Senator Seselja, first to you – the Prime Minister strengthening his criticism of the ABS, saying that measures that ought to of been in place, weren’t, that this was flat-out a failure of the processes, putting a bit of distance between the Government and the public service, it seems.

ZED SESELJA: Well, look, the Prime Minister’s obviously just making a statement of fact, which is obvious, that things could of gone better on census night and you know, obviously the ABS has been working very hard to make sure that the census can go ahead successfully, but clearly it would have been better if on the evening we could have had a situation where Australians who wanted to get online and fill out their census forms could of done so. That wasn’t the case, obviously, many millions did, but many millions couldn’t and that’s obviously disappointing but it’s a matter of getting on with it. The census will continue, people will still have the opportunity to do that, and it’s important that they do because this data is critical; it’s very important for decision making of governments for many, many years to come. So, whilst obviously it wasn’t ideal on the night, no data’s been compromised, the census will continue, people will have the opportunity to fill out their census forms and we can get all of that very necessary data.

GILBERT: Shadow Finance Minister Jim Chalmers, while the Government makes this point – while it wasn’t ideal, as Senator Seselja puts there, it could have been a lot worse, if there was to be a breach of the data.

JIM CHALMERS, SHADOW MINISTER FOR FINANCE: I thought it was pathetic what the Prime Minister was saying today – trying to point the finger at the ABS, to explain away his failure of leadership, which is now a failure to take responsibility, a failure to explain to the Australian people what was going on and a failure to ask these questions before it went horribly wrong, not to now ask these questions and pretend it’s somebody else’s fault and that somebody else is in the big chair. What we’ve got right now is a cacophony of cock-ups that’s become a big cop out.  The Australian Prime Minister needs to take responsibility for the Australian census and not engage in this pathetic finger pointing.       

GILBERT: Well the Government has been in place for three years, Zed Seselja, is it a bit much to be pointing fingers, as Jim Chalmers says, when it’s this government has put in place the various funding arrangements and so on, that have led the ABS to be where it is today, in terms of this oversight or the lack of oversight when it comes to the risks involved with the census website?

SESELJA: Well look, I don’t believe that that’s in any way what the Prime Minister was seeking to do. But just on that point Kieran, in terms of the IT systems with the ABS - that was a gap previously identified and I think it was around $250 million that was put in, but that takes some time to upgrade those systems. So, the Government was certainly aware of challenges, and some of these challenges exist in other parts of government due to under-investment in previous years. So I think if we’re going to talk about those kind of investments, the Government identified that, made that provision but you simply can’t do those kind of IT upgrades overnight.

GILBERT: These disruptions, Jim Chalmers, as the Prime Minister’s cyber-security adviser Alistair MacGibbon says, that they are common place – this is not a rare occurrence. So in that sense, should the Government - your obviously saying the Government should be held accountable for this – but this happens all the time, doesn’t it?

CHALMERS: It does happen all the time but there’s been no provision made for this sort of thing. There’s been no explanation. There are no hard questions asked before the event, before it went so badly wrong on census night. All we’re asking of the Government is to have taken responsibility for this before it went wrong and now it has gone wrong.  It’s not unreasonable to expect the Minister and the Prime Minister and others in the Cabinet to ask these sorts of questions, before Australians have to sit down for a couple of hours getting increasingly frustrated at a process that the Government seems to have paid little or no attention to, until it went bad. People are filthy about this right around the country, they’ve got good reason to be and now they wake up to the Prime Minister saying ‘oh look you know, I know I’m the Prime Minister of this country but it’s somebody else’s fault that we got this thing so badly wrong’ - I think that’s pathetic.

GILBERT: Let’s move on to the comments made by Ian Narev, the Chief Executive of the Commonwealth Bank. Jim Chalmers, as Shadow Finance Minister, you’d be very much aware of the remarks in which he said that the bank bashing from Labor can impact our international reputation – what’s your and what’s Labor’s response to the comments of the CBA chief?

CHALMERS: Well look the flaw in that argument is that somehow it’s the calls for a Royal Commission which damages that confidence of our banks.  What damages confidence in our banks are the serious allegations around rate rigging, the injustices in the life insurance system for example, the failure to pass on interest rate cuts, particularly in credit cards but also for mortgages. And so I think we do want strong, profitable and well-regulated banks in this country and that requires us to get to the bottom of some of these issues so people can have confidence - here and overseas -  that we’ve got the best banks, that they’re doing the right thing and that our financial system works for people and not against them.

GILBERT: Zed Seselja, your thoughts on this intervention from Ian Narev rejecting, well one the calls for a Royal Commission, but suggesting that the bank bashing needs to stop. The Government’s been doing its own bank bashing as well hasn’t it? In terms of questioning the banks’ motives, its handling of the rate cuts by implementing the Parliamentary Committee.

SESELJA: Well no, Kieran, we haven’t, and when it comes to questioning the failure to pass on rate cuts, I think that that’s a very legitimate thing for the Government to do on behalf of consumers who are not getting the kind of deal they would have hoped for. But on the broader point, when it comes to ‘bank bashing’ , I think there is a reasonable point that has been made there and you know Jim might say that they want a strong banking sector -


SESELJA: - and that this is really about getting to the bottom of things. It’s clear from Labor’s rhetoric that this is a populist push, and yes it has some superficial appeal - bashing banks has a superficial appeal – but the economic impact and the potential impact when we do get into that kind of game as Labor is, can be very serious. I think we need to take a very measured approach. We certainly will hold the banks to account, I think that’s reasonable as Members of Parliament and as the Government. But at the same time, when you go down this path of simply bank bashing for the sake of it, that does undermine confidence in very, very important financial institutions.

GILBERT: Ian Narev says that people that don’t think that this matters - this sort of ‘bank bashing’, as he put it  - aren’t in touch with global markets – that’s his argument – that it does effect, Jim Chalmers, sentiment internationally when it comes to our system.

CHALMERS: Again that argument relies on some sense that our profitability and our regard in international markets relies on getting away with some of the things that have been alleged over the last couple of years. If you want people to have confidence in our banks – here and overseas – you get to the bottom of these issues, you iron them out. It’s in the banks’ interest and it’s in the Australian people’s interest, most importantly, so that they can rely on the banks so that the things that have come to light in the last couple of years don’t happen again.

GILBERT: Does it look like the Government’s in a half-way house of sorts, Zed Seselja, in the sense that you won’t back a Royal Commission but you still want the CEOs to front up to a regular grilling from the Economics Committee?

SESELJA: Well, but, that’s not a halfway house, that’s just a measured response, and I’d add to that, that when it comes to wrongdoing, we’ve got a very strong regulatory framework and we’ve got ASIC, which has had its resources boosted but has very strong powers and has those powers, so you can put into context why it’s a stunt from Labor to call for the Royal Commission, when you look at the fact that ASIC has all of those powers, and in fact more powers because it can actually launch prosecutions and the like. So to the extent that anyone’s getting away with doing the wrong thing, well they know that there is a very tough regulator who will keep them to account. This idea of a sort of show trial, and putting the banks in the dock as Bill Shorten would like to do, I think does cross the line and certainly undermines confidence in the banking system as the banks pointed out.

GILBERT: I want to ask you both about the comments of the leader of the other bank, the Reserve Bank of Australia, as he makes his way out as Governor. The message really to both sides of politics says we are kidding ourselves if you don’t think hardnosed decisions will need to be made in terms of spending. Jim Chalmers, first to you.

CHALMERS: I thought that speech yesterday was a tribute to Governor Stevens. I had the privilege of working with him pretty closely for some of his time as Governor and I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that he was arguably the best central banker in the world during the GFC. That speech yesterday was a well-considered speech, as it always is. He made that point which is true: that governments and parties of both persuasions do need to take difficult decisions -  we’re certainly in the cart for that – that’s why we’ve got those $130 billion in Budget improvements which grow over time and improve the Budget position in a structural and meaningful way, so we agree with him there. He made a series of other really good points in that speech.  The other one of course, is that when you are talking about growth and jobs, you can’t leave that task to the Reserve Bank alone – the Bank can’t just dial up growth in this economy, as he said, with interest rate cuts. You need actual leadership, not a slogan, but leadership which involves investment in infrastructure and human capital and growing the economy the right way, which is an inclusive way.

GILBERT: And that also means using the right sort of debt, with costs so low right now, Senator Seselja, and obviously needing to put that into productive spending like infrastructure. That was a very frank message in terms of the need to rein in spending just quickly to you, we are almost out of time, Senator.

SESELJA: Look I agree with Jim that Glen Stevens has been an outstanding Governor of the Reserve Bank,  there’ no doubt about it. When Jim talks about Budget improvements under the Labor Party, what he’s talking primarily about is increased taxes –

CHALMERS: No, it’s a combination, Zed.

SESELJA: - and I don’t think that’s what Glen Stevens was talking about -

CHALMERS: No, it’s a combination.

SESELJA: - well that’s the vast bulk of it. It’s something like a hundred billion dollars of increased taxes. So yes, savings are very important and the first savings that will be on the table will be savings that Labor said during the campaign they will now support, so that will be the first test, on whether we can get some bipartisanship on some savings that are tough, but are very necessary.

BRISSENDEN: Senator Seselja, Assistant Minister for Social Services and Shadow Minister for Finance,  Jim Chalmers, we’ll talk to you booth soon.